By MITCH WEISS and RUSS BYNUM
SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — For three decades, the stained and blurry photograph presented a great mystery to Civil War historians.
It was a picture taken of another photo in a peeling, gilded frame. In the foreground stood a man, his back to the camera, wearing an overcoat and a hat. In the center, visible amid stains and apparent water damage, was a ship.
Did this picture show the only known photograph of the ironclad Confederate warship the CSS Georgia?
The 1,200-ton ship armored with strips of railroad iron never fired a shot in combat after it was built to defend the Georgia coast in the Civil War. Confederate sailors sunk their ship in December 1864 as Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops captured Savannah.
No blueprints survived and period illustrations varied in their details. The photo would confirm details of the Georgia’s design, if only it could be authenticated. Records show John Potter donated a copy of the picture of the photo to the Georgia Historical Society in March 1986.
As the Army Corps of Engineers embarked this year on a $14 million project to raise the Georgia’s wreckage from the river, archaeologists publicized the image online and in news stories — including an Associated Press story — hoping to track down the original photo.
Robert Holcombe, former curator of the National Civil War Naval Museum, told the AP in February that while the original photograph would be needed to confirm if the image was authentic, he believed it was real.
“Most people seem to think so,” he said. “Or else it’s an awfully good fake.”
Now the man who took that photo of the photo all those years ago says he wants to clear the record: It is a fake.
Here was the story John Potter told 30 years ago:
The Savannah native was at a yard sale when he found the photograph in an antique frame. Inscribed on the back of the frame was “CSS Georgia.” He couldn’t afford it, so he took a photo and mailed it to historical groups in Savannah.
Here is his new story, which he told exclusively to The Associated Press:
When he was a teenager in Savannah, Potter, his brother Jeffrey and a friend shot a short 8mm movie about the CSS Georgia. They built a 2-foot model.
At some point, Potter decided to test whether he had the skills to become a Hollywood special effects artist.
Potter’s younger brother put on a coat and straw hat and went out to a marsh with a cane fishing pole and Potter took a photo. He took another photo of the model. He glued the boat’s image onto the photo of his brother, then used dirt and glue to “age” the photo.
Potter sent the photo to historical groups, setting off a sporadic search for a CSS Georgia photo that he now says never existed.
The gilded frame that once held the disputed photo now holds a portrait of Potter’s deceased pug, Puggy Van Dug.
Potter, 50, lives alone in a cluttered, one-story house in the North Carolina mountains. He never became a successful special effects artist.
He once owned a Savannah antiques store and provided props for movies filming in the area. He had a stint as a maintenance man for a lighthouse and museum on nearby Tybee Island. He spent nights drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon at Huc-a-Poos, where a mock police mug shot of him hangs with the words: “Tybee Record — 77 PBRs in one night.”
“Potter’s a crazy guy,” said Eric Thomas, Huc-a-Poos’ owner. “He’s also a lovable guy.”
After their father died in 2011, Potter and his brother Jeffrey moved to North Carolina.
Last month, Jeffrey, the only person who shared the secret, killed himself at age 48.
Potter said he’d forgotten about the photo and had no idea the fuss it had caused until he saw it recently on the Army Corps website.
First, he decided to play along. But after his brother’s death, he contacted AP to come clean.
“I’m not in good health. I didn’t want to drop dead and carry that to my grave,” he said.
Potter said he never profited from his hoax.
“I didn’t intend to hurt or embarrass anybody, because I really love history,” he said. “But there’s still a lesson there: Do your dang homework.”
But is Potter now telling the truth?
He gave the AP his old 8 mm movie along with old photos. One showed a young man he said was his brother in a marsh wearing a coat and straw hat and carrying a fishing pole — much like the figure in the ironclad photograph. Another showed the boy holding the model of the ship.
Potter said the original got destroyed long ago when he tried to remove it from the frame.
After his brother’s death, Potter told Thomas about the hoax. Yet the bar owner suspected the ironclad photo may be real and Potter has it.
“I said, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ And he said, ‘Do with what?'” Thomas recalled. “And I said, ‘The picture.’ And he said, ‘I’m going to sell it.'”
Potter seemed to suggest to AP that maybe he was pulling an elaborate double hoax.
Then he dismissed that as “too wacky.”
“That’s crazy talk,” Potter said.
Weiss reported from Lenoir, North Carolina. Associated Press journalist Alex Sanz contributed to this report.